Asked to predict one player whose surprising performance in 2010 will propel the Rangers to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, I will state without hesitation that Derek Holland is my guy.
I don't care that PECOTA is not a fan, projecting Holland to produce a 5.28 ERA this season. Nor do I care that Marcel looks at him and projects a 5.12 ERA in 116 innings. Although CHONE is a little more optimistic (4.71 ERA), the system still predicts that Holland will be a below-average starting pitcher in the major leagues in 2010.
In fact, if you average the ERAs from the three projection systems for each of the Rangers' ten most likely starting pitchers in 2010, Holland ranks ninth behind not only Rich Harden, Neftali Feliz, Colby Lewis, and Scott Feldman, but also Brandon McCarthy, Tommy Hunter, Guillermo Moscoso and Eric Hurley. Apparently computers don't like second-year pitchers who posted 6.12 ERAs during their rookie campaigns.
Of course there are some perfectly good humans who don't expect much from Derek Holland this year either. John Sickels expects him to be below average. Seemingly all of the beat writers and bloggers who cover the Rangers expect him to begin the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City or in the Rangers' bullpen. The last time I checked, Joey was on board with having Holland in the Rangers' starting rotation because of his affinity for strikeouts. I like strikeouts, too, but I especially like the fact that Holland is a hard-throwing lefty entering his second season. Before I explain what I mean by that, let's first take a look at what really good left-handed starting pitchers look like.
Entering the 2010 season, the top seven left-handed starting pitchers in baseball are arguably CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, Cliff Lee, Johan Santana, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels and John Danks. All seven pitchers feature 90-plus mph fastballs with Sabathia (94.1 mph), Kershaw (93.9 mph) and Lester (93.6 mph) having had the three highest average fastball velocities among left-handed starters in 2009. Each of the seven pitchers have at least one off-speed pitch that rates as above average to plus. Statistically in 2009, the seven left-handed starters averaged 199 innings pitched, 3.43 ERA, 8.0-plus K/9, and a sub-3.0 BB/9:
For comparison, Holland's 2009 major league numbers are presented below the averages of the top seven lefties. Although Holland's ERA is nearly double the average for the leading pitchers, the three statistical lines over which he has the most control (K/9, BB/9, and GB/FB) are remarkably similar to the top pitchers. Holland's unsightly ERA resulted from a home run-per-fly ball (HR/FB) rate that was approximately 50 percent higher than league average and a left-on-base percentage (LOB%) that was among the lowest in baseball.
Because the equation used to calculate fielding-independent ERA (FIP) includes home runs, Holland's FIP also suffered from his higher-than-expected HR/FB rate. As has been pointed out by others (here and here, respectively), Holland's performance in 2009 was not nearly as bad as his ERA and FIP would suggest.
Interestingly, when you look back upon the careers of today's top left-handed starters, you note that many of them had first seasons that were marked by high ERAs despite solid peripherals. In fact, averaging the first-year stats* for Lester, Kershaw, Lee, Santana and Danks produces a statistical line that is remarkably similar to Holland's (see table above). The lone statistical measure that is significantly different, ERA, resulted primarily from Holland's ridiculously low LOB%.
Now take a look at the bottom row in the table to see what those five pitchers did in their second seasons. Slight increases in strikeout, LOB%, and ground ball rates coupled with reductions in BABIP, walk, and home run rates helped the other five left-handed pitchers shave nearly two runs off of their collective ERAs. If Holland replicates the improvements that these other highly-regarded left-handed pitchers made between their first and second years and his LOB% improves to league average, then a sub-4.00 ERA and a prominent spot in the Rangers' rotation will likely result.
Obviously, the past performances of similar players do not guarantee another player's future success, but there are additional reasons to believe that Holland is on the verge of a breakout season:
(1) Holland pitched 138 innings against major league hitters in 2009 after an abbreviated minor league career (two years, 221 innings pitched, just 30 innings above Class A). 2009 was on-the-job training against the best the game has to offer. Like most second-year pitchers, Holland should benefit from the lessons he learned in his rookie campaign.
(2) Holland's fastball velocity (92.3 mph) was just a tad below Kershaw and Lester and comfortably above the 91 mph inflection point that separates the game's best starting pitchers from the rest. Although his fastball features outstanding movement (8.8 inches of horizontal movement compared to a pitch thrown without spin), the pitch rated as below average in 2009 (-0.91 runs per 100 times thrown). Interestingly, many young starters with good velocity and movement struggle with their fastballs early in their careers. As they become less reliant on the pitch and less predictable with when they use it, the run values of their fastballs improve.
(3) Concerned that Holland is going to struggle to become an effective major league starter like a few other left-handed pitchers who were rated highly by Baseball America? Don't be. Franklin Morales (5.2 BB/9), Gio Gonzalez (4.1 BB/9), Scott Elbert (4.8 BB/9) and Donald Veal (5.2 BB/9) all struggled with their control during their minor league careers. Jon Lester (3.8 BB/9), Brett Anderson (1.9 BB/9), Cole Hamels (3.3 BB/9), Clayton Kershaw (3.7 BB/9), John Danks (3.3 BB/9) and David Price (3.1 BB/9) did not.
Derek Holland has a minor league career rate of 2.6 BB/9 and he maintained his control as a major league rookie (3.1 BB/9). Outstanding control should make it possible for Holland to add new pitches to his repertoire (cutter, anyone?) or improve the ones that he has. It also means that he can be more aggressive with his pitch selection early in counts because he knows that he can throw strikes if he gets behind.
(4) Holland has a major league fastball. According to FanGraphs, his two most productive pitches in 2009 were his slider (+0.24 runs per 100 pitches) and curveball (+1.04 runs per 100 pitches). The movements and velocities of both pitches are approximately league average for starters and they can be very effective when complementing his low- to mid-90s fastball. Increasing the usage of his breaking pitches and/or improving his change-up (-3.51 runs per 100 pitches in 2009) are really what separates Holland from stepping into the conversation of the game's top left-handed starters.
[*Because Santana and Lester had abbreviated first and second years in the majors, I combined the stats for their first two seasons and considered that to be their rookie seasons. The second year totals are derived from what was technically their third seasons in the major leagues.]